The steamboat War Eagle burned and sank in the Black River 148 years ago in La Crosse. With the loss of several lives, it was a tragic event. It also was a major loss for the city because the fire spread onto the shore and destroyed the railroad station, grain elevator, warehouse and a train that had just let off passengers to board the boat.
Today, the boat still lies where it settled in 30 feet of water, a short distance north of Riverside Park. Buried in the mud is the 219-foot hull of the boat and most of the contents that didn’t get destroyed in the fire or disintegrate over time.
Some of those materials were salvaged in the early 1980s by local scuba diver Dennis Brandt. Brandt brought up several hundred pieces from the wreckage and later placed them on loan to the La Crosse County Historical Society to display at the Riverside Museum in Riverside Park. Shortly before Brandt died in 2012, he donated the items to the society. Since 1988, there have been restrictions placed on the recovery of artifacts from the War Eagle and other Mississippi River shipwrecks.
While no great treasure was found, these items are a valuable historical treasure, an important time capsule from an 1870s riverboat. After all of those years under water, the glass, ceramic and metal objects survived mostly intact, while wood, fiber and other organic material fared less well.
If you visit the Riverside Museum, you can see most of what Brandt found.
On exhibit are many glass bottles of all shapes and colors, used for shipping liquid refreshments such as whiskey, beer, wine and soda water, but also specially shaped bottles that once were packed with pickles, condiments, patent medicines, ink and dozens of materials considered essential for life in 1870. Kerosene lamps were the preferred form of lighting, and many of their glass chimneys, shades and bases — fancy and plain — survived.
You also will find white stoneware from the boat: pitchers, plates and platters, cups and saucers. There are jugs and two decorated crocks from Fairfield, Iowa. A glazed ceramic spittoon in the shape of a seashell that once caught the passengers’ tobacco chaws is on display, damaged but still beautiful.
Metal objects that Brandt recovered include blacksmithing tools, carpenters’ tools, and tools used by the boat’s engineers made of cast and wrought iron. Other period items include axes, wrenches, augers and chisels. Cookware of the day included cast iron and graniteware pots and pans. There are huge kitchen knives, metal cups, spatulas and tableware, along with empty tins that once held sardines and oysters.
All of these items and more bring enticing clues to everyday life of 150 years ago. Plan to visit the Riverside Museum this summer and see these treasures formerly buried in the mud of the Black River at La Crosse. They have many stories to tell.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on April 21, 2018.